I’m late to the party, as usual, but I can’t resist getting in on the City of Chicago’s program that encouraged all Chicagoans to read Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye as part of a city-wide discussion. The Outfit has covered this in detail, and better than I’m likely to do here, but that never stopped me before.
It had been several years since I read The Long Goodbye, though I have always thought it was the most beautifully written of Chandler’s works, and I read Chandler for the writing. A lot of other reading competes for my attention, and it’s sometimes difficult to choose to reread something when the pile of books never read threatens the safety of anyone who disturbs it. I took the attention focused on TLG as an excuse to give it another look. What I found was unexpected.
Maybe it was all the commentary I’d already read; maybe I’ve grown as a reader. (Probably the former.) This was different book than I remembered; in particular, a different Marlowe. No longer the knight errant, fighting battles he can’t win in the hope that enough good will be accomplished to make his draw—or narrow defeat—palatable. This Marlowe has seen too much, lost too much, and been alone too much. What had been sardonic comments are now cynical. This Marlowe is a man well down the road to bitterness, who no longer expects things to work out in any appreciable manner. He plays out the string because his code demands it, not for any expectation of accomplishing anything. He views all others in shades of dark grey; he can’t help them, and, since they probably don’t deserve it, he’s not going to overextend himself. Even his walk into Mendy Menendez’s trap at the end is more an act of fatalistic resignation than of the courage displayed when boarding the gambling boat to look for Moose Malloy in Farewell, My Lovely. Marlowe doesn’t care what happens to others, so why should he care what happens to himself? It makes the book no less effective, but makes his solving of the final puzzle even more bittersweet than usual.
Chandler’s writing is at its peak. The famous similes are there, and almost every page has at least one line to inspire any writer to whisper “I wish I’d written that” as his eye passes over it. Time has forced a change in perception here, too. The Long Goodbye is Chandler’s farewell to Marlowe in many ways. Playback came several years later, a shadow of the work that had come before, Marlowe rebelling against the prospect of becoming a kept man. It’s impossible to know how Poodle Springs would have turned out had he lived to finish it, instead of Robert B. Parker. The unabashed Chandlerphile Parker—then at the height of his considerable powers—returned Marlowe to the character who took on all comers in The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely, a man probably overmatched who is willing to fight a battle of attrition because, whatever happens to him, he believes it is his will that prevails.
Denouements fall like October leaves in The Long Goodbye as Chandler wraps up loose ends with Eileen Wade, Bernie Ohls, Sylvia Loring, and Terry Lennox. In some ways it’s as if he knew he would never again write anything of this stature and wanted this one to last as long as he could reasonably prolong it, the literary equivalent to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. In it, he sums everything good and not so good about his writing—nothing about it was ever bad—and lays before the reader as conclusive a testament to his archetypical detective as any scholar could hope to accomplish. Chandler’s own struggles with women and booze showed him Marlowe had to become; in The Long Goodbye, he shows the rest of us.